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Italian premier quits in tactical move amid crisis over handling of pandemic

Giuseppe Conte hands resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, setting off scramble for new political allies as he tries to form third government

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte updates the Parliament on the coronavirus emergency in Rome, March 25, 2020. (Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse via AP)
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte updates the Parliament on the coronavirus emergency in Rome, March 25, 2020. (Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse via AP)

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday after a key coalition ally pulled his party’s support over Conte’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, setting the stage for consultations this week to determine if he can form a third government.

Conte tendered his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, who held off on any immediate decision other than to ask Conte to keep the government running in the near-term, Mattarella’s office said. The president will begin consulting with leaders of political parties starting Wednesday.

Conte is hoping to get Mattarella’s support to try to form a new coalition government that can steer the country as it battles the pandemic and an economic recession and creates a spending plan for the 209 billion euros ($254 billion) Italy is getting in European Union recovery funds.

Conte’s coalition government was thrown into turmoil earlier this month when a junior party headed by ex-Premier Matteo Renzi yanked its support. Conte won confidence votes in parliament last week, but fell short of an absolute majority in the Senate, forcing him to take the gamble of resignation.

In this Sept. 5, 2019 photo, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the swearing-in ceremony at the Quirinale Presidential Palace, in Rome (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Mattarella, Italy’s largely ceremonial head of state, can ask Conte to try to form a broader coalition government, appoint a largely technical government to steer the country through the pandemic or dissolve parliament and call an election two years early.

The current coalition of the 5-Star Movement, Democratic Party and smaller Leu party are all hoping for a third Conte government. Conte’s first government starting in 2018 was a 5-Star alliance with the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini that lasted 15 months. His second, with the Democrats, lasted 16 months.

Salvini and center-right opposition parties are clamoring for an early election, hoping to capitalize on polls prior to the government crisis that showed high approval ratings for the League and the right-wing Brothers of Italy party led by Giorgia Meloni.

Medical personnel attend patients at Casalpalocco Covid 3 hospital on the outskirts of Rome, January 1, 2021 (AP Photo/Andrea Rosa)

Salvini has blasted the “palace games and buying and selling of senators” of recent days as Conte has tried to find new coalition allies, claiming that Conte is incapable of leading Italy through the crisis.

“Let’s use these weeks to give the word back to the people and we’ll have five years of a serious and legitimate parliament and government not chosen in palaces but chosen by Italians,” Salvini said Monday.

Democratic leader Nicola Zingaretti says an early election is the last thing the country needs. He tweeted Monday: “With Conte for a new clearly European-centric government supported by an ample parliamentary base that will guarantee credibility and stability to confront the challenges Italy has ahead.”

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